4 July 2023 –
The history of the fight against corruption in Latin America and the Caribbean cannot be told without the meaningful participation of civil society organizations, activists, and regular citizens speaking out against corruption and advocating for more transparent and accountable institutions. As the region commemorates the 45th anniversary of what Samuel Huntington called the “Third Wave” of democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean, civic space, particularly in anti-corruption efforts, has been increasing restrictions.
While national constitutions and both the international and the inter-American human rights systems protect the right to assembly and expression, civic space in the anti-corruption agenda is mired with complexities, as classic dogmas about legal and legislative processes clash with forms of participatory democracy, specialized interest groups, and the inherent role of citizens in state oversight. Certain governments in the region have ceased to include citizens in the anti-corruption agenda altogether, actively preventing activists and anti-corruption watchdogs from taking a role in public dialogues on corruption.
Members and affiliates of the UNCAC Coalition from Latin America and the Caribbean came together on 4 May 2023 to discuss the regional challenges of working with ever-shrinking spaces for civic participation in anti-corruption efforts. Representatives from organizations from Peru and Guatemala shared their experiences working in situations of shrinking civic space, while representatives from the Open Government Partnership spoke about advocating for civic space in their global alliance of governments and civil society actors.
Dark times for Article 13: Civic Space in the UNCAC
The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) highlights the importance of citizen participation in the international fight against corruption through its Article 13, which states that each State Party “shall take appropriate measures, within its means and in accordance with fundamental principles of its domestic law, to promote the active participation of individuals and groups outside the public sector, such as civil society, non-governmental organizations, and community-based organizations, in the prevention of and the fight against corruption and to raise public awareness regarding the existence, causes and gravity of and the threat posed by corruption.” The first subsection of the article adds that States Parties should “enhance transparency of and promote the contribution of the public to decision-making processes.”
Yet despite this provision, and despite repeated calls to formalize the participation of civil society organizations in international anti-corruption fora and national UNCAC implementation review processes, some States Parties have acted to exclude civil society organizations from anti-corruption fora. At the 9th Conference of the States Parties (COSP) to the UNCAC, one country, in particular, objected to the participation of civil society organizations in the conference, alleging links to terrorism. More than a year after these events, the participation of most of these organizations in UNCAC fora is still uncertain, and it is unknown whether they will be able to participate in the 2023 COSP.
Furthermore, only 34 States Parties have signed the Transparency Pledge, guaranteeing the role of civil society in the UNCAC implementation review process. According to our Annual Activity Survey, however, only 7% of UNCAC Coalition members or affiliate organizations from the Latin America and Caribbean region have participated in their country’s review process.
Are governments in Latin America maintaining the status quo regarding civic space?
The regional anti-corruption convention, the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption (IACAC), also invites civil society actors to participate in the anti-corruption agenda, through Article 3.11 on preventive measures where it agrees to “agree to consider the applicability of measures within their own institutional systems to create, maintain and strengthen […][11.] Mechanisms to encourage participation by civil society and non-governmental organizations in efforts to prevent corruption.” Despite the wording being more relaxed than in the UNCAC, the Organization of American States has formalized steps for effective civil society participation in the Convention’s review process through the Follow-Up Mechanism for the Implementation of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption (MESICIC).
In the Regional Meeting, Carolina Cornejo and José García, Country Support Consultants from the Open Government Partnership (OGP), shared information about OGP’s work on civic space in Latin America and the Caribbean. OGP is an international platform that works to make governments more open, transparent, and aware of citizen needs, which currently works with several national and local governments in Latin America and the Caribbean. The platform integrates civil society organizations, academics, and citizens into co-creating policy action plans alongside their governments, which provides OGP with first-hand experience bringing governments and citizens to the table on anti-corruption matters.
Carolina and José were blunt about the current situation around the world: fewer and fewer governments are committing to increase civil society participation, freedom of assembly, or freedom of speech in their action plans. Two-thirds of countries where OGP works have moderate or severe restrictions on the press, and more than one-third suffer from restrictions to public assembly. Some countries outside the region, like Canada and Indonesia, have made specific commitments to empower civil society watchdogs, but most countries participating in OGP stick to the status quo of limiting their engagement with non-governmental actors.
Threats, violence and exclusion of CSOs
Latin America and the Caribbean have witnessed significant setbacks in terms of civil society participation in the anti-corruption agenda and in the right to assembly more broadly. According to Le Monde, Latin America accounts for 75% of the world’s total murders of environmental activists, and Reporters Without Borders points to Latin America and the Caribbean as the regions where most journalists have been killed. Likewise, anti-corruption watchdogs in the region have been subject to harassment, threats, and violence for speaking out and holding governments accountable.
A representative from a Guatemalan civil society organization shared their experiences working on anti-corruption matters in the country. Between 2006 and 2019, an International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) operated under the guise of the UN to investigate and prosecute corruption, at the request of several Guatemalan governments. However, in 2019, the CICIG’s mandate was not renewed and the national policy turned 180 degrees: state prosecutors began to investigate and prosecute attorneys, civil society actors, and media organizations that had participated in CICIG proceedings and hearings. This was quickly followed by a series of measures that restricted the operating capacity of civil society and media organizations and restricted these organizations’ access to official registers. Harassment and threats of violence toward activists have become more common in recent years, and many organizations have reduced the scope of their work for their employee’s safety.
The situation, as discussed in the Regional Meeting, was not unique to Guatemala. Participants noted attacks on their organizations or their partners in Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Mexico. Representatives from Central America and the Caribbean noted that their governments have used Pegasus spyware to keep tabs on human rights and anti-corruption activists and organizations.
Polarization, loss of legitimacy, and reduced spaces for dialogue
While overt physical attacks on civil society organizations and activists may not be the norm in the entire region, governments all over the region have created barriers for civil society participation, aiming to delegitimize activists and watchdogs within the national discourse around human rights and anti-corruption. According to a 2021 Freedom House article, activists have suffered increasing attacks because of their activities and their legitimacy as relevant actors has been severely called into question. Likewise, Human Rights Watch has noted a sharp decrease in civil liberties of human rights activists in the region.
This impacts the perception of NGOs as relevant actors in democratic life: the Latinobarometro shows that, in 2020, 56.3% of respondents in the region had little or no trust in NGOs. The same is shown by Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Barometer, which indicates that 27% of citizens surveyed in the region believe CSOs to be corrupt.
A representative from a Peruvian civil society organization shared their experience working on anti-corruption issues in the country. Peru is currently traversing a constitutional crisis surrounding the legitimacy of the current President, Dina Duarte, who assumed office backed by Congress following an attempted suspension of the Constitution by former President Pedro Castillo. The situation has polarized the country in favour and against the current President, with some reported situations of unwarranted state violence.
The political polarization has placed anti-corruption and human rights NGOs and activists in the crossfire. Denouncing present or past corruption or human rights abuses has now become a pro- or anti-government stance, depending on the situation, leading to increasing distrust of civil society organizations in the public sphere. Political actors have increasingly refused to involve civil society organizations in relevant anti-corruption or human rights discussions due to this increasing polarization. Fake news has labelled activists as partisan actors and even accused these organizations of being corrupt agents. Civic space is slowly shrinking, and local NGOs fear an institutional backlash if the crisis deepens.
There was wide consensus amongst the participants of the regional meeting that similar situations had or were occurring in their countries. Organizations from Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, El Salvador, and Puerto Rico noted that increasing polarization in the public sphere was making their work much harder.
Conclusions and the way forward
In a poll circulated before the meeting, UNCAC Coalition members and affiliates were asked about civic space for civil society organizations (CSOs) in their countries. Respondents tended to overwhelmingly disagree on the statements, “CSOs are systematically included in the formulation of laws in my country,” “In my country, there are no barriers for CSOs to access funding,” “CSOs are not at risk of attack or physical violence in my country.” Respondents clearly did not think the statements applied to their country’s context. Anti-corruption watchdogs and advocates from Latin America and the Caribbean have a grim outlook on civic space in the region.
While the meeting had a very sombre tone, there were messages of hope: several organizations expressed their solidarity with other organizations and noted the importance of working as an international community to regain the civic space that is withering in the region.